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[Also, I admit to having published this story elsewhere -- so, if you have already seen it, please ignore]
In October 2018 I took a road trip. On it, I spent ten glorious days in Berlin (one of my absolute favourite cities -- and barely a cloud was seen in that time), but, from the perspective of this group, not that interesting. Was busy, so did not have the chance to dig out the watch specialists -- so saw only the usual city centre outlets (Wempe, Bucherer, Leicht) selling the usual stuff, but did notice that the asking prices were higher than UK (my reference) by a few per cent.
During my stay however I did contact Glashütte Original to ask whether there was any possibility of looking at their manufacture as I was intending to drive down to visit Glashütte. At least three emails in each direction ensued over the course of a week, culminating with an extremely polite and apologetic phone call on the day I arrived in Glashütte (when I was already there) to the effect that they could not accommodate me. Ironically, I then sent a tongue-in-cheek mail to Moritz Grossmann, only to receive a reply within 15 minutes apologizing that, that day, they could do nothing -- but that, were I to visit again and give them a couple of days notice, they would love to show me round. Drat, backed the wrong horse -- but impressed with MG.
To their credit, GO did give us (Mem'sahib and me) free entry to the Glashütte watch museum, and subsequently followed up with another mail hoping I got home safely :)
So, general impressions . . . . .
Glashütte is a large village rather than a small town. It is very attractively located (meaning that there is quite a drive on very small roads to get there), is quite picturesque, and (considering that it was in East Germany thirty years ago) very well maintained.
It does have a railway station, but services are infrequent.
The most amazing thing about Glashütte is the juxtaposition of so many famous brands. I took a panoramic photo from outside the front door of GO to illustrate, and caught four world famous brands (and the source of seven of my watches) . . . .
This is ALS with the tower of GO visible immediately behind . . .
And Nomos and MG are separated only by the railway line . . .
Tutima is about two minutes walk further on . . . .
Additionally, Union, Mühle, Söhnle and Wempe are only a few hundred metres further.
Interestingly, there seems to be only one (or maybe there are two) small AD in Glashütte (Union, Mühle, Söhnle), though there is a small but smart Nomos factory outlet. GO told me that they had a factory store, but moved it to the centre of Dresden (twenty five kilometres away). So, you can visit the source of German high-end watchmaking, but you can't buy a really high-end watch.
There are some things I didn’t realise, though, had I applied a few grey cells, I should have.
Caveat: I am not a historian, so, whilst I am very aware that not everything which may be read is necessarily true, I have not assiduously checked the following research. If you know better, please feel free to correct me.
I think everyone here will have read that the transformation of Glashütte from mining village to watch manufacturer was led in the early nineteenth century by Ferdinand Adolph Lange, Julius Assmann, Moritz Grossmann and Adolf Schneider, with the financial support of the royal Saxon government -- and that the family firms grew over the next century, via skill and innovation, to be among the world's leading timepiece manufacturers. I understand that the only real blip was being late to realise that tastes were moving from pocket watches to wrist watches. The culmination of the “heyday” was supplying the large demand for military timepieces from 1933-44.
Having been untouched by hostilities for six years, the village was bombed at the very end of the war -- apparently on 8th May 1945 (the day after the German unconditional capitulation). This photo purports to show the Lange factory. Fortunately, there were few casualties.
As they took control of eastern Germany after the war, the Russian government authorised the confiscation of German industrial assets of all kinds by way of reparation for the damage caused by the German invasion of Russia. Almost all machinery in working order remaining in Glashütte, and most designs and templates were expropriated. The people however, and their skills remained.
In the late forties, the remaining craftsmen gradually rebuilt their production capability. Resources were scarce, so machines and tools had to be built from scratch. Working together was the natural way, which fitted well with the new communist philosophy of the DDR. In 1951, the re-emerging watchmaking capabilities of Glashütte (including the still existing firms of Lange and Mühle) were nationalised as a group as Glashütte Uhren Betriebe (GUB). With very restricted import possibilities, GUB had to become self-sufficient in almost all component parts and in the machinery to make them. Nevertheless, GUB became a major exporter to other parts of the Warsaw Pact bloc, and even to West Germany (earning much needed “hard” currency). It was in this period that Spezimatic and the later Spezichron were developed. By the mid 1980s GUB employed 2,500 people, produced (IIRC) hundreds of thousands of watches each year, and enjoyed a good reputation for fine (if industrial) movements. Interestingly, GUB did dabble in quartz (mainly for ladies’ watches) but it never became a focus.
Everything changed again in 1989 with the “fall of the wall” and German reunification (treaty actually in 1990). East Germany became part of the Federal Republic (West Germany), a capitalist economy with little appetite for state controlled businesses. In common with about 8,500 other old DDR businesses, GUB was placed under the administration of the Treuhandanstalt, the agency responsible for reprivatizing previously state owned enterprises. Treuhand slimmed GUB down to around seventy people in order to try to make it competitive and saleable before finally finding a buyer (Heinz Pfeiffer) in 1994. Pfeiffer took GUB upmarket in every sense, and renamed it “Glashütte Original” before selling it again to the Swatch group in 2000.
The slimming down of GUB/GO from over 2,000 employees to less than one hundred of course left a lot of skilled human capital available in the town. Unencumbered by the need to reorganize, entrepreneurs with newly available financing began forming new, western-style watchmaking companies in Glashütte, using the choice of newly unemployed skilled personnel. The earliest were Nomos and ALS in 1990 (ALS was founded by the great nephew of Ferdinand Adolph Lange). Others followed, culminating in the creation of Tutima and Moritz Grossmann in 2008. As was usual in Glashütte, there was a tendency to “inbreeding”. As an example, Christine Hutter had spent time working at both ALS and GO before taking the plunge to form MG. This “commonality of heritage” probably explains why so many Glashütte companies are keen to follow in the footsteps of GUB by making so much in house.
So, what is the take-away point? IMHO it is that, when watch enthusiasts say that all the Glashütte manufacturers are “johnny come lately” and don’t have the heritage of the major Swiss brands, they are right in the strict (legal) sense (with the possible exception of GO), but fail to understand the depth of heritage instilled in the people (the watchmakers) who have been continuously active, and continuously developing their skills and innovations, over the last 170 years.
In the centre of the village there is a memorial to the man generally considered to be the father of watchmaking in Glashütte. 7th December 1845 is remembered as the day when he began training his first apprentices. Three years later their skills were considered sufficient to allow the first timepieces to be produced.
A few metres down the road, dominating the village centre, is the German Watch Museum. Its full title translates as "Glashütte German Watch Museum -- Nicolas G Hayek".
The museum, and the associated charitable foundation, was established in 2006 by GO with the support of the Swatch group. Its purpose is to support the art and culture of German watchmaking via science, research and education. It embodies the exhibition (part of which changes frequently), a library, and a restoration workshop.
To give you a flavour, the following are a few photos (only "phone quality" I'm afraid) that I took during our very informative visit.
There were many other wonderful exhibits which (unfortunately) did not photograph very well -- but, I think you get the idea.
All the way round, I had to keep reminding myself that the "A. Lange & Söhne" pieces I was looking at have nothing to do with the company currently using that name (except that the grandchildren of the people who made the pieces probably now work for "new" ALS). They were all made by the old company, which was absorbed into GUB, and finally became GO.
All very confusing !
Of course, I did not go on holiday without watches of my own -- so here is the obligatory photo. Naturally, I chose only "German speaking" watches: one representative from each Glashütte manufacturer in my collection, and one from Schaffhausen.
In July 2019, I took another driving holiday which included Saxony and surroundings. In addition to Dresden, Meißen, Gotha and Bayreuth, I returned (I can't think why ! ) to Glashütte. This time, though, I contacted Moritz Grossmann (as they had suggested) three weeks in advance to ask for a factory visit. As good as their word, they came straight back with a "yes". I then contacted Glashütte Original, and similarly they had space on a tour the day after my date with MG.
The two experiences, whilst both to be recommended, were quite different.
The initial welcome at MG is a little daunting. You find yourself confronted by a locked front door fitted with an intercom bell.
However it was only a couple of minutes before I was sitting in a large conference room being plied with (good) coffee, and greeted by the head of marketing and my customer service contact (both delightful ladies). We chatted for about a quarter of an hour, during which time I was introduced to the gentleman who would be my guide for the morning. Two surprises: I was the only guest on the tour, and my guide was a senior product developer (in fact, the gentleman who had been responsible for the creation of the movement for their "Cornerstone" rectangular watch).
During the tour I was taken to every department, including product development, prototyping and the various stages of production -- and, not only was I allowed to take photographs in virtually every area, I was encouraged to talk to all the people I met (except perhaps the watchmakers concentrating on final assembly of watches for customers).
What did I learn? Unsurprisingly, CAD is the start of every project. Less obviously, prototyping (who work very closely with development) regard it as their role to stress test the designs. As they build the physical prototypes of new concepts they try to ensure that they find any glitches well before the customer gets the first watch. Just about every part of their movements (all of which are in-house designs and manufacture) except the springs (but even including the screws) is made in the building. Almost every part is "finished", and all finishing is conducted by hand. Most impressive was the painstaking and iterative work involved with perfecting by hand each individual proprietary balance. And the dedication applied to the production by hand (from machine made blanks of course) of each hand set was also rather special.
Some photos . . . .
The forbidding front door :(
One of several CNC stations making blanks -- note microscope.
Bar machining station for producing shafts and screws.
Bar products, including screws.
Stages of production of the balance.
Stages of finishing -- snailing
Snailing in progress -- the three stages take about an hour.
Stages of finishing on hands.
Heat treating a hand to achieve the "violet/brown" trademark hue.
Hands are matched in sets.
Final assembly of the watch. Each unit is the responsibility of one individual watchmaker. And every watch is assembled twice -- a trial for functional testing, then final finishing before final assembly.
(The gentleman standing was my guide).
My two hour tour ended with coffee again, with the two ladies and my guide -- and, of course, a chance to handle the whole collection (quite a pleasure).
Two examples of treating customers with unusual consideration were evident during my visit.
Firstly, at the start of my visit, apologies from the CEO of MG (Christine Hutter, whom I had previously met in London) were conveyed for her absence -- she was away on business, but had registered that a customer was visiting and (unlike some CEOs) had taken the twenty seconds required to make him feel special.
Secondly, and perhaps more telling was this. Being a financial mere mortal (but with a taste for the finer things in life), I have to buy my MGs used. I had picked up the Benu PR earlier in the year in London. MG were good enough, from photos and the reference numbers, to confirm to me: where and when the piece had originally been sold, that (from the photos) it looked genuine, and that it did not feature on their register of stolen pieces (they seem to have a fairly complete register of owners!). This was very helpful, so I went ahead with the purchase despite evidence that the case back had been removed at some time (odd, as the watch was only one year old). To be fair, though, the price reflected the uncertainty. Before my visit to MG I asked whether they could take a quick look at it, and they agreed immediately. The piece was taken away from me at the introductory coffee by another charming watchmaker, and returned before my departure. He confirmed that the back had indeed been removed by (to use his words) a "less than professional watchmaker". He knew this because some of the screws had been damaged, and obviously one had been misplaced because it had been replaced with a non-MG screw. He had checked the watch over, cleaned it, verified the regulation as much as the time permitted, and replaced the screws with new (he gave me the "originals" in a small container), and reassured me that the watch was absolutely fine. There was no charge!
The next morning, I made a visit to Glashütte Original. This was different in almost every respect from the MG experience, but very enjoyable nevertheless.
Instead of being confronted by a locked door (as at MG), at GO you walk into a very large (almost vast) reception atrium in which some seating areas, display cases featuring their lovely products, and a large reception desk are almost lost. I had been asked to be punctual, so I was ten minutes early. On presenting myself at the desk I was asked to make myself at home until the guide appeared.
Exactly on time (this is Germany after all), the guide (a charming marketing lady) turned up, and gathered her group together. We were five strong.
At MG, I had of course worn an MG. At GO, I was wearing a GO (the Panoreserve) -- I thought it common courtesy. However, I rapidly noticed that I was the only one so equipped.
Once again, we saw almost every element of the process (though with much less emphasis on development and prototyping). However, we saw it all through glass walls. Though the overall impression was excellent, we got to speak only to our guide -- though she answered most questions openly and well. Photography was definitely not allowed -- hence no illustrations here.
Most people in the group clearly knew rather less about the watchmaking process than I (surprising, as I am a complete amateur), and the tour was designed for that type of audience. So, for instance, we got to play by trying to "heat blue" a set of hands ourselves (with suitable HSE warnings).
All the processes we saw looked very clean and professional. I was positively surprised at the amount of hand finishing taking place (GO produces, after all, around 20 times as many pieces as MG each year), but did notice that the final assembly of only the finest pieces in the range is the responsibility of only one watchmaker. Mainstream pieces are built by small teams.
Another difference was that, whilst there were plenty of lovely watches to admire in display cases, we did not get "up close and personal" with the product.
All in all, the visit felt more like a tourism service that an attempt to encourage customers -- but well worth the time spent.
Thanks for reading all this way.